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North Carolina senators want to ban a specific type of child custody: The kind created when parents hand off their children to strangers.

By Minali Nigam

For pet owners who feel they can’t take care of their animals, “rehoming” is a pretty simple process in which an owner can have a private exchange with a new pet family. But rehoming a child is a significantly more serious and complex matter which isn’t officially illegal in North Carolina.

Yet.

Some parents, at their wits end, take drastic measures when faced with an intractable child. Senators want to prevent those kids from being harmed themselves. Image courtesy Phineas H, flickr creative commons

Lawmakers met during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary I Committee at the General Assembly Tuesday to work on a bill which would prohibit unauthorized permanent or temporary transfers of children to strangers. Rehoming, said Sen. Tamara Barringer (R-Cary), has resulted in some children around the country ending up in the hands of human traffickers.

“[The bill] makes it very clear that it is illegal for parents to go out on the internet … and hand their children off to strangers,” she said. “They are in a crisis and they don’t know what to do.”

“But it’s never acceptable to hand your children off to strangers on I-85 or McDonald’s or wherever. They have to be someone that the family knows and is vetted.”

Parents go to extremes

In September 2013, the Reuters news agency conducted an investigation on rehoming across the U.S. and found, “Through Yahoo and Facebook groups, parents and others advertise [their] unwanted children and then pass them to strangers with little or no government scrutiny.”

Parents have been known to post requests through online platforms and then hand over their fostered or adopted child to a new guardian by meeting up near highways or in restaurants or, in some instances, signing a power of attorney document. According to a Case Western Reserve Law Review article, a power of attorney document used in cases of rehoming “is filed nowhere; it functions, in essence, as a receipt.”

Internationally, adoptees account for 70 percent of rehomed children, according to the Reuters report. The news organization found 271 children nationwide in North Carolina who had been advertized.

“It really is sort of [an] extreme examples of what happens,” said Karen McLeod, a social worker who is CEO and lobbyist for Benchmarks, a North Carolina child and family advocacy organization. “Desperate times lead to what you would normally think no rational parent who went through all this effort to adopt a child would do.”

McLeod offered no specific examples of children being rehomed in North Carolina, but lawmakers are acting to prevent such incidents from taking place here.

Before these children are adopted, McLeod said, they’ve often suffered severe forms of trauma. For some kids, the neglect can start young, in the first three months of life, when children’s brains are growing rapidly, she said.

From these traumatic experiences, children adopted from other countries, McLeod said, could have attachment disorders, issues around promiscuity because of previous sexual abuse, be compulsive liars, steal from families, or show violence towards other kids in the house and their adoptive parents.

“We’ve had cases where the parent woke up and the child was trying to light the bed on fire with a lighter,” she said.

Post-adoption options

As of July 2015, seven states had started the process of making rehoming illegal, with some states focusing on improving post-adoption services to help struggling families, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released last September.

In North Carolina, there are two post-adoption programs for families needing assistance with childcare, Kevin Kelly, chief of the Child Welfare section of the state Division of Social Services told lawmakers during the judiciary committee hearing.

“We provide, through contracted services, skilled social workers who can go into that family, very intensively work with them to address what is often behavioral health needs of the children, but also dynamics that are happening in the family,” he said, referring to the Intensive Family Preservation Service program.

However, families with internationally adopted children often don’t know these services exist, Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) pointed out.

“That’s one of the great needs for us, because there really isn’t a good way for these parents to know how to reach out,” Barringer said.

Children in the state child welfare system are tracked by local Department of Social Service workers. But adoptions outside of foster care, including international adoptions, are harder to track, according to McLeod.

Parents of international adoptees transfer custody with “almost no risk of intervention by a government agency,” because their adoptions are not monitored by any state or federal agencies. So, those families get little to no post-adoption oversight or help.

“They have all the love and affection for this child,” McLeod said, “They get to the point where they’re just at their wit’s end.”

No numbers

Part of the bill, Barringer said, requires the Department of Health and Human Services to collect data and develop a program for families in child-crisis situations.

While there is information about rehoming on a national scale, the specific numbers for North Carolina aren’t available.

“Part of the reason we know it’s happening is when children have been intervened in sex trafficking rings, we’ve been able to run it back… to determine that some of these international adoptions that did not go well,” McLeod said.

However, Barringer said rehoming should be illegal across the board, not just in the cases of international adoptees.

“This bill relates to all families in crisis,” she said. “What we want is healthy families in North Carolina. Families that can stay together. Families that can be helped by this.”

The bill fails to address the need for better pre-adoption educational programs for parents, said Sen. Angela Bryant (D-Rocky Mount). Case Western Reserve University law student Sean McIntyre, who wrote in the law review article about the issue, agrees that there’s a need for broad-based legislation.

“Instead of legislation that solely criminalizes rehoming,” McIntyre wrote, “legislation [should address] the underlying causes of rehoming, such as the lack of adequate parental education requirements, the absence of accountability of adoption service providers, and the deficiency in post-adoption services.”

Said Barringer: “But right now what we’re trying to do is to deal with the carnage that’s occurred when families have gotten in such crisis without help.”

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